Pollies face off but crowd has water on their mind

By Alana Christensen

It may have been billed as a Rural Issues Forum but there was always going to be one issue that dominated discussion: water.

Before Deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie faced off with Federal Member for Bendigo Lisa Chesters, she made sure the Labor Party’s recently released water policy was front and centre.

Senator McKenzie and her team came armed with dozens of copies of the seven-page document which outlined Labor’s plans to lift the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s buybacks cap, deliver the controversial 450Gl of ‘up-water’ and return to the original socio-economic definition for the 450Gl.

Ms Chesters slammed her opposition for their methods.

‘‘It’s just a trashy, pathetic tactic,’’ she said after the 90-minute forum at the Woolshed in Kialla.

‘‘It’s a fear tactic; scare the hell out of people, don’t present a plan or talk about a plan, don’t encourage people to be part of a plan, just scare the hell out of people and hope they vote for you.

‘‘Let’s not pretend it’s any secret document or anything new.’’

While a number of issues were discussed at the debate, many in the crowd had water on their mind.

Former VFF president Peter Tuohey pushed the candidates on what they would do to combat rising water prices which recently saw water sitting at $600/Ml and has seen dozens of dairy farmers forced out of the industry.

Ms Chesters said she didn’t believe the market was currently working, but she didn’t miss the chance to take a swipe at the Coalition for the current controversy over buybacks and its own water policy.

‘‘We have buybacks and the Cayman Islands in the same sentence; I mean honestly,’’ she said.

While Senator McKenzie put some of the price rise down to drought, she said ultimately the area had been ‘‘decimated’’.

‘‘And I know we can’t take one more megalitre ... without devastating effect. We’ve all seen what happens,’’ she said.

‘‘(The Labor policy) will devastate not just northern Victoria but southern NSW and beyond, all to satisfy hungry voters in Brunswick.

‘‘Lisa, to say you’re going to get rid of the cap, to say you’re going to commence buybacks, to say you’re going to get the 450, it’s all legislated. There’s only one way you’re going to get it and there’s only one group of people you can get it from. And so, words actually won’t mean anything when you start rolling out that kind of legislative change.’’

A Labor push to reverse the December 14 Ministerial Council decision about the socio-economic test was also a key concern of the small crowd.

Under the original definition water recovery would be assessed on an individual basis, rather than the recently-agreed-to community-wide assessment.

In an attempt to placate the crowd, Ms Chesters acknowledged there would be work to be done to change the test and that the southern basin had done ‘‘a lot of the heavy lifting’’.

‘‘It’s our position (that we want to return to the original test) but we know that we must sell it to the states and we must get them to agree,’’ she said.

Ultimately, the water discussion was not going to leave anyone satisfied, and one farmer put it best.

‘‘It’s like Groundhog Day.’’